Friday, October 2, 2009

The Evolution of a New Garden and Double Digging

From In the Garden

A new garden starts with an idea, a spot of ground, a garden hose, and a shovel here at Tiger Gardens. My philosophy is the more the gardens I have the less mowing I have to do! The area of this new garden is the spot a trampoline was covering for many years (you can see the trampoline in the above photo but we have since given this to my neighbors so no more unsightly trampoline in the garden). As such, there was nothing but weeds in this location. Think wild strawberries, plantains and spurge. Yuck! But really here at Tiger Gardens the real reason most gardens are started are to surround a tree or other hardscape. In this case I planted the Japanese maple first (see it in the picture) and finally got around to finishing the garden months later. I find that starting small with planting the trees then digging the garden later works very well for my situation.

After I've had time to mull over just what I want to put in my new garden (including all the cool plants I find on other blogs), I begin to visualize a garden. In this case I added two more trees to this garden so the garden shape morphed to a somewhat loose triangular shape that is about 20' by 20'. It is quite big!
Trust me when I tell you it is big because when I began digging every part of my body felt each shovelful. In order to fine tune the shape of the bed I always use a garden hose delegated just for this purpose. I next start digging....
While the dogs lay around and sleep. Ha! The dog's life!
See all that digging in the foreground I've already done? Doesn't it look like the dogs have it bad-as bad as me? So bad three of them decided to go straight to sleep while I worked. Too bad I can't teach them how to use a shovel. It took me about 15 hours over three days of hard digging to dig out this bed. Like I said I'm not as young as I used to be so it takes me quite a bit longer. It used to be I could get this garden completely double dug in one day. Bella, the oddball out, decided to lay down on the Secret Patio all by herself. Here she is looking for those pesky squirrels that plague her every waking moment in the garden. Double digging is really what I wish to talk about in this post. More on this garden at a later date. As an ardent gardener in the early 1980s I read everything on gardening I could get my hands on. One of those books that made a big difference to me in my gardening life has been a Rodale book on organic gardening, and specifically on double digging. Don't ask me to remember the name or author but I do know it is an organic gardening book. It described the process of double digging and recommended all gardens be prepared in this way. I have always tried to prepare gardens in this manner but have not always been good about it. Well, this garden lucked out and I endeavored to double dig the entire thing.How do you do it you ask? Well, you first remove one shovelful of soil one shovelful deep and set it aside (after turf and weeds are removed). Then take that same shovel and turn the soil over underneath the removed soil. Go to the next row and remove that soil and place on your newly fluffed up soil. Keep going until the whole bed is done. Once done, add in the first row of soil you removed. If you do it right it is not a really big undertaking. Sometimes it is hard to see where you are working and sometimes the soils (topsoil and subsoil) get mixed up. But that was not the case with my garden. See the picture above? There are three rows pictured there. The first or top row is the newly turned over top soil from the middle lighter colored area. This middle area is lighter colored because my subsoil does not have as much organic matter in it as the top soil. You can clearly see the line of definition. The bottom dark area is undisturbed soil. Can you see the changes? My soil has tons of organic matter but I did add in coffee grounds and I will mulch the whole bed with a good layer of newspapers and organic mulch (probably composted leaves). I am betting weeds will be non-existent and the plants will quickly get established.

If you have dug the garden properly the entire bed will be raised a few inches above the surrounding ground. Visitors to Tiger Gardens always marvel that my beds are all raised and wonder what I add to make them raised. Nothing! It is simply owing to the way I dig the beds. The benefits of double digging are that it really opens up compacted soil by adding in all kinds of air spaces. Double digging also loosens the soil so that roots and water can penetrate easier. Both are really good thing for clay soils.

It is best not to walk on the soil after dug unless necessary, but a bit of walking for maintenance will not do too much harm. Above is the newly dug and planted garden taken from the same angle as the first picture. This all happened in three days-glad I don't do too many new gardens anymore. I will share the design of the garden in a later post. But let me just say that in addition to the J. maple 'Bloodgood', there is a 'Rhapsody in Pink' crepe myrtle, tall cannas, yellow button mums, columbine, hostas, dwarf nandinas, bouncing bets, catmint, foxgloves, and a serviceberry a good gardening friend gave to me. I had planned for another tree to go into this bed. A tree that I traveled all the way to North Carolina to purchase. Funny thing is that when I got to the nursery I realized the initial 'tree' I desired for this garden is not really a tree at all and it would not work for this garden. I actually came home without that plant but instead bought a replacement tree. That tree is too big for this garden so will go elsewhere in the garden. More on that at a later date.

in the garden....

P.S. The first picture has absolutely nothing to do with this post. I just wanted to get your attention with some pretty flowers. The yarrow and begonias play very well together in my garden-even in the fall.


  1. Tina,
    I am eagerly awaiting the surrender of our trampoline, I hate it.
    Double digging is hard but worth it, make sure you take a break after all that and treat yourself to a relaxing weekend. The garden looks great already.

  2. Whew! I'm tired already! We tried this with the garden and gave out, well worth it though.

  3. Wonderful, the garden looks marvelous! It's so good when all the hard work pays off!

  4. Thanks for describing your technique! I dream of doing this in the spot where we have our above ground pool now - (the carefully- chosen sunniest spot in the yard, of course!) A friend of mine recently converted her above ground pool area to a small cornfield.

  5. Good morning Tina, That is a grand undertaking! Did you have lots of tree roots to take out as well? Putting in a new garden is lots of fun to plan and choose new plant material. You will love Rhapsody in Pink, my neighbor has it and the dark leaves with the bubble gumm pink blooms is really pretty. I am curious as to the plant that turned out to not be chosen. How much sun/shade is this garden. From the plant material there must be some shade with the hostas on the list. Which Amelanchier did you get? I have been looking at Autumn Brilliance.

  6. Now I'm wondering if it will be extra hard to dig that pool area since the water's been packing down the soil for years! Ugh - I'm tired just thinking about it.

  7. I can see the benefit to double digging but it is a hard task to work on. Have you considered the layering approach? I tend to do the newspaper thing covered with grass clippings, leaves, and other organic matter then mulching. It's a little bit easier.

  8. Rosey, I didn't realize how much I did not like ours in the garden until it was gone and do you know I love to jump on it?? It is a pain it kills all the grass. But it is only next door so close by. They seem to be a part of life in yards with kids.

    Dawn, Very well worth it!

    Lzyjo, Yes indeed-less lawn to mow!

    Jen, Oh yes, I can sympathize on the pool. It often takes up prime real estate. It's wonderful to dream of it gone and new gardens.

    Janet, Very few tree roots. The surrounding trees are oaks and their roots are not as intrusive as some. We had had some trees taken out in this area years ago so there was plenty of rotted roots. The area is part sun, more shade than sun. Rhapsody will get some sun, but not much. The cannas, ditto. I push the limits here. The funny thing is the plant I had my hopes set on was enkianthus and it is more of a shrub than small tree. Won't work. Sigh. I don't know the cultivar of the service berry but it is a single trunk tree about 10 feet tall. I don't particularly like the shrub forms of serviceberries and that is what I've seen Autumn Brilliance marketed as. But, that being said I am sure it is a great tree. I also grow 'Trazam' serviceberry and have been quite pleased with that beauty. I wound up bringing back a silverbell instead of the enkianthus but the silverbell will go elsewhere in the landscape. I love my trees-can you tell?

    Jen, It shouldn't be too much harder to dig the pool area. It will be compacted for sure but you should still be able to turn it. I hope you'll post on it I'd love to see when you get to it.

    Dave, I did the layering on one garden here. It is a fine approach but takes much longer. I always recommend it to folks who wish to start a new garden and either don't have time or the capability to dig one like this but I prefer hand digging for a good start and less weeds.

  9. The first garden I made when I move here was double dug with manure and sand added. Now days many 'experts' scoff at adding sand to clay. I can only say, after all these years, that bed still has excellent texture. The down side being water evaporation.

  10. I love the new garden Tina -looks great. Too bad those doggies didn't help with the digging:0) My willow is on her way to being the prettiest tree in the yard -hehehe. It's been trimmed and staked to pull it back upright. I missed you all -I read but have alot going on. Have a super day!!!

  11. Hi Marnie, Good morning! Many do scoff at adding sand to clay but a bit must surely help. Double digging is the real gem though-it makes the soil pretty close to perfect. Do you know about greensand? It is what I add to my clay soils and helps to change the texture. A wonderful addition too.

  12. Anonymous, Hello there! Glad you like the garden. I hope you are doing well. I'll give you a call.

  13. Tina, Your post has me thinking about which has worked better in my garden...double digging or layering. Hmm! Must think! gail

  14. Double digging has recently been called into question by some expert or other as damaging the soil's texture. 15 years ago, I started off double digging my garden, but quite a while ago I gave it up as too much work. It also didn't give enough bang for the buck. Then I tried lasagna type layering, but that failed to account for the large buried chunks of concrete. So now I'm doing a kind of modified double digging that's mostly just digging it all up & mixing in lots of organic matter.

  15. Tina, you dont fool me girl. I know you had Link, CeeCee and BJ digging that garden for you! Just look how worn out they are from all the work you had them doing for you, while you and Bella girl sat sipping your cool drink at the secret patio! LOL, I love that picture of the dogs napping by the freshly turned soil. Too funny!

    As soon as I saw the picture before reading the words, I was wondering if Jimster still jumped on the trampoline. After reading, I found out that answer!

    This all looks so good and I cant wait to see it in person. I was thinking that maybe you moved the bananas to this garden but see not so. Hum, now you have me wondering where those nanners will go. You always keep me on my toes girl...

    Have a great weekend!
    Burn Ban is lifted so we will be having a bonfire this weekend. Lots of piled up debris from the windy summer

    PS, Dawn should borrow your pink picture for Pink Day tomorrow!

  16. Oh, one more thing Tina.

    Have you ever heard of Clay Buster?

    My mother in law has started to use that in her yard which is full of clay. Someone told her about it and claims it works. She has not reported back to me as if it works for her or not....

  17. Yes! I should use your picture with my inside begonia and link you! Nancy is linking me, if I can fix the picture!

  18. All those plants will fill that space pretty quick and it will be sooooo pretty. Good ole elbow grease pays off in the end and that is a lot of elbow grease. You never did shy away from hard work.

    Great shot of the 3 dogs sleeping. My reaction of it was "It figures that the dogs all sleep but Bella girl". She is so hyper that it is hard for her to stop.

  19. Wow! That's quite something, Tina. 15 hours over 3 days means a lot. Great work!!!

  20. Hi Tina, like your doggies, I think I need a nap just reading about all that digging. I just don't have the strength or motivation to do it, whether I should or not. Lately the layering method with the heavy layers of newspaper and six inches of mulch, I use soil conditioner, have worked out fine. Long run, too soon to tell. It looks great already though! :-)

  21. Gail, Let us know which one.

    MMD, I swear by double digging and would dig every single garden this way given the chance. I've heard about the mixing of subsoil and topsoil but feel the fact the compaction is reduced and air is introduced and it all works works for me! You can never go wrong with organic matter:)

    Skeeter, Hello! I think we've decided to leave the bananas in place for now. We both love them so much and since we've heard many folks have had difficulties with their veggie gardens we are going to take the chance. This new garden is not near sunny enough for the bananas but if it were it'd be ideal. And boy, those dogs if only!! I may have heard of Clay Buster but don't have any knowledge of it. Ask your MIL if it has Greensand as one of the ingredients? I bet it does and if so, it would be great for sure.

    Dawn, I have no idea what you are talking about:)

    Mom, Those silly dogs! All they do is sleep. When Link is not sleeping he is begging me to go inside so he can sleep. They all finally gave up on this rainy day and collapsed outside. After of course I wore BJ out with his ball. Now Bella, she is a bit more active but her preferred sleeping place was under a lounge chair hidden from view in a chair cover. She cracked me up. I wanted to show all three as they had not been on here in a while. Perhaps Christy will see her girl.

    Urban Green, It seemed I'd never finish it and I was so sore. But it is all good now. Read big sigh of relief.

  22. Less grass to mow is always a good reason for a planting bed. I know you got a good workout creating that bed. It looks so nice and the plants will appreciate the extra work you put into it. I wish I would've known how to double dig when I worked on my bed behind the pond a week ago.

  23. Frances, I just missed you. Hate it when that happens. I am betting long term your gardens will still be splendid indeed with all of your care.

    Catherine, I swear by double digging. A wonderful way to create a garden but hard work as you know. It is not a good idea to do this to a bed that has plants in it though. I thought you already had plants? Your bed will be great for sure.

  24. Hi Tina, I don't double dig anymore, but I did do it for one garden. Love your new bed. I'm ready for the swing set/jungle climbing gym to go.~~Dee

  25. A great garden but a lot of work. Made my poor arms/shoulders hurt just to read.
    Ole' Arthur or somebody in his family has a good hold on me. lol Been so out of it.
    But I finally found the plant I've been looking for for some time. Stokesia laevis 'Mary Gregory'. A plant close to my heart as she is gone now. I will put her in a pot so I can watch her closely. I found some other plants that caught my eye-Toffee Twist,Lemon Grass,Blushing Butterflies & adagio. 2.99 ea. I thought that a good deal. Oh happy gardening pain or not.

  26. Well, now that you have worn me out with digging I think I will go take a nap. :) Just kidding. Very informative post.

  27. Dee, It's kind of nice and kind of sad to see the kids playthings go but a relief to the garden for sure.

    Lola, Lots of work indeed. So glad you found some great buys! I have heard that stokesia is a good plant. And you got Adagio? Yeah! Great buy indeed.

    Leedra, Nap time for me too with lots of ibuprofen:)

  28. The information about double digging is good, and that begonia is fetching - but what drew me in were those dogs. Like a herd of cows on a lazy afternoon or sows lying in the shade.

  29. Thanks Les, The dogs are a herd all in and of themselves. Do you see the real herd of cows behind them in the pond? Two herds! Too bad they all couldn't lift a shovel and dig.

  30. Hmmm, are you sure you aren't working those dogs too hard? :)

  31. Tina, I've had garden soils where digging even the first shovel full was a killer chore, let alone getting to the second layer below, although those are the places where the technique probably gives the most results. Somewhere I read that another good reason for double digging is that it keeps the microbes from the top layer of dirt in the top layer, instead of burying them deeper where they'd probably die and not benefit the plants. Some of our native plant nurseries advertise loudly that they use soil mixes that contain soil microbes of the sort you find in the top crust.

  32. Tomorrow will be the last day we have that awful trampoline in our garden - I hate that thing! I've finaly made the rest of my family understand that nobody's using it anymore!

  33. Tina, This is why you were one of the top nominees for Best Educational Blog at Blotanical--another very informative post! Not only that, but your timing couldn't have been more perfect--I'm ever so slowly digging up a new flowerbed for the spring. I don't think I've ever heard of double digging before, but I may be doing it intuitively. It certainly makes sense, and I will try this method on the rest of the new bed. If time--or my energy--run out, I may use the lasagna method, but I really like to dig up the soil for a new garden if I can.

    Seeing your dogs lying around makes me laugh. I actually had a helper the other day--Sophie, being the young pup she is, thought my digging was so much fun. She'd grab the clumps of grass I'd dug up and shake and shake them until all the dirt flew off. Then, once I had a decent sized area dug up, she got in there and dug--voila! Double digging without any effort on my part! Do you suppose I can train her to do this all the time? If so, maybe I could hire her out--Sophie, the gardening dog:)

  34. Sweetbay, They are worked way too hard and have life so rough I wish I was a dog sometimes!

    James, Oh yes, I know those soils. In that case the only solution is to go up as in raised beds:) Makes it so much easier. I am lucky our soil is good. Microbes are good good good! I hope the double digging does help them for sure.

    Gittan, Yeah for no more trampoline! They are so fun at first but after so many years it has to go. Room for more gardens now;)

    Rose, Why thank you for your very kind comment. I was most excited to make the finals in the Best Educational Blog. It was the one category I really wanted to win too but oh well. Double digging is a good thing. You can Google it and see tons of info on it and I love it for my gardens. Those dogs, ha! Yes! Train Sophie now while she is young and still has energy. BJ is so old now all he does is sleep. My neighbor cared for them while we were out of town and do you know she could not get him up in the morning as he is a late sleeper and early to bed kind of guy. Sophie will be a great helper but hopefully not when the bed is planted. Major issues then but you gotta love them.

  35. I heard about double digging on "gardening by the yard"...can you tell I watch more tv than read. ha
    Anyway 20' by 20' is a large area !
    Funny that in the pic it doesn't look nearly as large as it is.
    I too like the idea of having a tree or large shrub as a starting point in creating a bed. Also I'm famous for getting the wrong tree etc....then trying again.
    Did you say 15 hours of digging?
    You must be in pain !
    But a good way to think of it is...this is a good pain for work well done...that's what I tell myself.
    Way to go !!!!

  36. It seems dogs find it very tiring to watch their humans work in the yard. Mine do the same thing. You've got me thinking, I used to do this in my early gardening days, and then I started taking the lazy approach, thinking the worms would do all the work for me if I gave them good compost. I did have good results with this technique, I think you're wise to start out gardens this way, and also to start with a tree or hardscaping element to build around. I bet that's why your gardens always have such lovely structure.

  37. I loved your philosophy about the more gardens you had the less you had to mow them. Now I understand why we're planting so many more plants at home.

    Greetings from London.

  38. Well I thought the dogs had done the digging and were lying down for a rest - looks can be deceiving :-)
    You must be aching after all that work. I'm grateful that my soil is very light to dig though it would be nice if it held moisture for a bit longer!

  39. Wow that is a lot of work but I'm sure it's worth it. I think the dogs have a better idea though... LOL. I have the Rodale book. I love it too especially since I'm a novice gardener. -Jackie

  40. Hi Tina,
    LOL That first photo is a pretty one. I haven't double dug for many years. If my body gets healthy again, I should consider doing that again. A lot of my garden books are from Rodale. I can remember some things about the book I read on double digging. I'm thinking "French" was in the title, but I'm not sure. It was a tan or gray paperback. I'll have to look and see if I still have it. I am upset with myself for getting rid of my Ruth Stout book that made me laugh so much while reading it.

  41. I'm with the dogs, I'd prefer a nap! But that's why your gardens look so good ~ you don't nap! I should have followed this method last year when I amended my soil in a few of the beds. Instead, I removed all the plants, and some soil (I have heavy clay soil too) then added compost, peat, etc., and mixed it in well. Double digging would have worked better in the long run I bet. I'm sure you slept well these nights ~ that is definitely hard work.